The Arctic is being transformed by climate change. The changes will lead to new challenges in how to govern and protect the land and huge ocean on the northernmost part of Earth. That’s according to the Commission on Arctic Climate Change – made up of scientists and members of industry, environmental organizations and native representatives – organized by the Aspen Institute and Prince Albert II of Monaco Foundation. Sven Lindblad is president and founder of Lindblad Expeditions, which operates tours to ecologically sensitive and remote places like the Arctic. He was one of 11 members of this commission. In March 2011, these experts released a report on the Arctic called The Shared Future. Sven Lindblad spoke more about the new report on the Arctic – The Shared Future – with EarthSky’s Jorge Salazar. To learn more, LISTEN OR READ: audio podcasts above, text below.
What is the main finding of The Shared Future – the new report by the Aspen Institute Commission on Arctic Climate Change?
The main finding is that the Arctic is a very large area with many opportunities but many stresses, also: international stresses, national stresses, regional stresses, and stresses related to indigenous people’s rights and natural resources. The Commission on Arctic Climate Change was trying to determine how to reconcile those stresses by recommending ideas that would work globally and regionally for all these various constituencies. The emphasis was on trying to ensure that we would develop behavior that would mitigate the rapid rise of effects related to climate change.
What is the future that we all share in the Arctic?
First of all, the environment as a whole – and climate change, especially – is not a national or regional issue. It’s a global issue. It affects all of us, and it will effect all of us in one form or another. The Arctic just happens to be an area where a lot of these issues are tangible. A lot of heating is happening faster in the Arctic and in the Antarctic, in the polar regions, than elsewhere. And that’s where a lot of Earth’s ice is. It’s where a lot of new territories will develop as a consequence of ice melting.
It’s extremely difficult to get people to think about how an effect – or a series of effects – far, far away ultimately will effect them. The Arctic is an area where there are relatively few people compared to many other population centers. But changes there will have an effect on our future most definitely and very powerfully.
The issues are incredibly complex. Let’s say you juxtapose what’s going on with climate change and how it might unravel over time – and you compare that to how we’re reacting to something like a tsunami in Japan. A tsunami in Japan has an immediate effect. You can see it in dramatic form. And we react to that. Not to get too philosophical, but I think our brains are wired to react to immediate effects.
We have trouble thinking of things that unfold over time. That’s a political problem. It’s just the way we’re taught or the way our minds work. But to grapple with this problem, you really have to imagine 10, 20, 30, 50, 100 years out. That’s a moral question as well as a practical question. Part of our responsibility is to leave this planet hopefully in better shape for future generations – certainly not in worse shape. And if we actually mean that, we have to face this issue.
How do you see shipping and tourism changing the Arctic. Where are some of the biggest changes happening?
One of the biggest changes will happen in the Northeast Passage, the passage above Russia. As that whole waterway opens up, there will be more and more shipping. As more shipping occurs, there will be more emphasis on territorial issues. Unfortunately, there will be more opportunities for accidents, as well. The Arctic is a fragile ecosystem in many ways, so there is a lot to worry about.
There has been growing interest in Arctic tourism. We’re fascinated with that part of the world. People want to see the wildlife. They want to see polar bears. And they’d like to experience some of the culture that exists up there.
And that’s a good and bad thing. The good part is that the more people who see these parts of the world, the more appreciation there is. It’s a fantastic way to expand constituencies. The bad thing is that people go up there, and if they’re not prepared for the challenges of the Arctic, they can get into serious trouble. That can be dangerous to the people who go up there, and it can be dangerous to the system. So all of these things, like more or less everything, have a good and a bad component.
I’m an advocate of good tourism that respects an area, respects the geography, respects the people – and ultimately aims to leave people with ideas and thoughts that make them more able to deal with and discuss a subject. To me, it’s not just a business. It’s a form of communication that I think is actually quite vital. There is going to be a lot of territory in the Arctic previously under ice and becoming available for exploitation – mineral exploitation, fisheries, shipping, and so on.
What opportunities do you see now in the Arctic to protect the environment?
First of all, if we as a global community can get our arms around the idea that the health of natural systems in the Arctic matters a great deal – even if it may mean we have to change our behavior in a lot of other areas – that’s important. That’s an opportunity.
The Arctic can be an incredible stage set – to communicate and make people understand that this stuff really, really matters.
So to me, personally, that’s the greatest opportunity. There are lots of opportunities envisioned by people in terms of mineral opportunities and fishery opportunities, and so on. I have a real, personal conflict about that – about to what degree that is appropriate. Where are the balances there? What is the relationship of short-term human needs and long-term integrity of a place?
To determine where you stand is a very hard question to figure out. Environmentalists are people who care deeply about the environment, but on occasion some have inadvertently portrayed themselves as anti-human. I don’t think that’s a winning strategy. People have to be able to develop. They have to be able to develop aspirations and reach those aspirations while using resources intelligently. All we need is balance.
What is your vision of a healthy Arctic environment? How is that different from the reality today?
A healthy Arctic environment would have healthy populations of every living creature, including human beings. There would be communities where there’s dignity, good economic opportunity, education that works and functions; so those communities would be healthy and happy and thriving. And I think in order for that to happen, you have to have the natural systems, the wildlife, the glaciers. All of the natural systems have to be in reasonably good health.
Just as global warming or climate change will happen quicker in the Arctic or the temperature will rise quicker in the Arctic, the effects of imbalance with nature will be more profound there, as well. We rely on nature. People need the environment to thrive, and the environment needs good stewardship on the part of people to thrive.
What level of international cooperation is needed to safeguard life in the Arctic and the ecosystems that support it?
National behavior can be selfish behavior. If you’re going to change the landscape of that, you need an overarching philosophy that people can understand and support. And you have to have belief systems that allow that to happen. So, number one: politicians and people – decision makers – need to believe fundamentally that a healthy ecosystem matters for the long-term future of the people whom they govern. Without that, you’re lost, because then they’ll exploit for short term.
So, at the end of the day, you need a philosophical underpinning that a healthy ecosystem matters and is part of your responsibility as a leader.
EarthSky interviews on the new report from the Commission on Arctic Climate Change – titled The Shared Future – are part of a special series made possible in part by Shell – encouraging dialogue on the energy challenge. EarthSky is a clear voice for science.
Jorge Salazar has conducted thousands of in-depth interviews with scientists in the process of creating science content for EarthSky. He also helps host the 90-second EarthSky podcasts. Jorge has a bachelor's degree in physics from the University of Texas at Austin. He knows a lot about a lot of different things. For EarthSky, he has explored subjects as diverse as nanotechnology, ecosystem-based management, climate change, global health, international environmental treaties, astrophysics and cosmology, and environmental security. His penetrating research style, poetic writing, and ability to track down and speak with Nobel prize-winning laureates, all make him a huge asset to EarthSky.